Build Your Own Vegetable Curry

Healthy dinners don’t fare very well if you refer to them as healthy dinners. You might know in your head that it’s a healthy dinner, but if you call it that, forget about it, everyone at the table’s going to groan.

So do what I do: package a healthy dinner inside a package everyone already knows. For example, make a vegetable curry. When you hear the word “curry” you think “oooh flavor, spice, heat, Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, toucha-toucha-toucha-touch me.” The best part is: once you have the basic technique down, you can apply it to a wide variety of vegetables. Let me show you what I mean.

This actually began at the farmer’s market. I go to the Monday West Hollywood Farmer’s Market because it’s not as crazy as the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market or as far away as the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. On this particular day, I bought a big head of cauliflower and a big fennel bulb:


[Those who’ve read my book know about putting ingredients on display. It inspires you to cook more; and, in fact, because of the visual cue, I used both those ingredients really quickly. The fennel went into the fennel salad I served in yesterday’s fish post; and the cauliflower went into this improvised curry.]

Here’s how the process begins. In a large wide pot like a Dutch oven, heat some coconut oil with a splash of olive oil (if you don’t have coconut oil, just use the olive oil). If I had fresh curry leaves here, I would’ve stemmed them into the hot oil (see here) but at this juncture, I didn’t. So to the hot oil, add a sliced yellow onion. Cook on high heat with a pinch of salt, then lower the heat and allow the onion to turn a deep, dark golden brown. Meanwhile, heat a small skillet filled with big spoonfuls of coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and cumin seeds:


When the seeds are fragrant, pour them into a spice grinder and grind them up. Use a lot because this is where most of your curry flavor comes from.

Now on this particular occasion, I cut up my cauliflower into florets:


But at this point you could use any vegetables, really. Use big chunks of carrot, onion and celery (like I did in my rustic vegetable ragu) or large chunks of potatoes or squash or anything that you think would taste good with these curry flavors. And if you don’t have any vegetables, you could always do this with just a can of chickpeas.

Add 3 to 4 cloves of chopped garlic and about 2 tablespoons of chopped ginger to the pot with the onion:


When those become fragrant (after 30 seconds or so) add your ground up spices along with a tablespoon of Garam Masala and a teaspoon of turmeric:


If you look at that picture carefully, you can see I also added 2 dried red chiles for heat. That’s a good idea.

After those all toast together for 30 seconds, add your vegetables (in this case, cauliflower) with a pinch of salt and stir all around so the veg gets coated in all the spicy goodness:


For protein, I added a drained can of chickpeas:


And, finally, a can of whole tomatoes which I crushed once they were in the pot by hand (just keep your hands away from the hot stuff and don’t squirt yourself in the eye):


You also might want to add some water here if the pan is looking kind of dry. Add about a cup or so.

Stir all around with another pinch of salt and your work is pretty much done. Half cover, allow it all to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes and check as it goes along. If it’s too liquidy, remove the lid and allow it to simmer uncovered. If it’s too dry, add more water. If the vegetables aren’t tender yet, cook them longer. If the sauce isn’t flavorful enough, add more salt (though everything concentrates as it reduces). Pretty soon it will look like this.


At this point it may need a hit of acid, so pour in a splash of vinegar (red wine, white wine)…not so much that you taste it, but just enough to pep things up. At the very end, I like to stir in a lot of chopped parsley for color.


And that, my friends, is how you build your own vegetable curry with whatever you have around. It’s a really tasty dinner and goes great over rice. I topped mine with some chopped scallions because I had them and thought they’d add another layer of flavor and crunch.


Think of this post as a loose blueprint rather than a series of specific instructions. For example, with the tomatoes you could add a can of coconut milk and that would take things in a totally different, but no-less legitimate direction. If you want it spicier, add more heat with more dried red chiles or a pinch of cayenne or both. The choice is yours. And the best part is, after reading all this and looking at all these pictures, you probably forgot that this was a healthy dinner. It is! I win.

9 thoughts on “Build Your Own Vegetable Curry”

  1. I cook like this all the time – it is healthy, but who cares, since it’s delicious! Yogurt in the sauce is a traditional add-in. I also like to add Indian pickle for heat and I prefer cilantro to parsley if I’ve got it. I’ve never added wine for acid, I usually go with lemon juice – may have to try that! Mostly made with pantry items, it’s an easy weekday dinner.

  2. I had everything listed so my cauliflower curry is simmering on the stove. Smells wonderful. So, Adam, what am I making tomorrow?

  3. Slightly off topic: love my enamel cast iron dutch oven but can’t get the stains out (tomato etc). Any hints? or just don’t worry about it?

  4. Freshly ground and toasted spices are definitely key to an authentic curry, as are the fresh ginger and garlic. I think cauliflower is my favorite vegetable to add to a curry, closely followed by sweet potatoes. Adding coconut milk is such a nice treat, too.

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